Council gets homeless center, treatment plant updates

Benny Westcott

By Benny Westcott 

Of The New Era 

Community and Economic Director Blair Larsen on Tuesday, April 26, updated the Sweet Home City Council on the Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center Group’s managed outreach and community resource facility for the homeless. 

According to Larsen, Linn County has finalized the transfer of the “Knife Property” east of Bi-Mart to the FAC, which is now meeting once a week with the city to coordinate its development.

Public Works staff members have begun cleaning the site, both on the FAC property and on an easement that will run through city property behind the Public Works Department headquarters. Fencing is being installed on the easement’s south side, an effort that began April 20. 

“This portion of fencing is crucial,” Larsen said, “as it keeps the Public Works Yard secure.” 

After the fencing, work can begin on extending the water line and conduit for power and telecommunications, as well as laying gravel for vehicle access. 

Larsen added that Sweet Home High School students are constructing components of the 30 huts planned for the site (see the April 27 edition of the New Era), which will be assembled on the property after the latter is graded, graveled and fenced. He also said that the FAC is working with a local contractor to schedule the City Hall Annex’s transfer to the site. 

“I applaud the youth of our high school for the excellent work that they’re doing,” he said. “I’ve seen them over the years build chicken coops and things like that, and they’re always working on something. They’re wonderful students and they learn a lot of things about construction through those projects, but the idea of them being able to create something that someone can live in, and replicate that, is just amazing. I think that there’s life lessons in this process. Those little Conestoga huts aren’t luxurious in any way. 

“I’m really grateful for them to have that opportunity, and that pride in what they’re doing. This is moving forward so quickly, to change lives and to change what’s happening in the face of Sweet Home. This is very exciting.” 

The council also unanimously approved a proposal from Lake Oswego engineering firm West Yost Associates for initial work on an upgraded wastewater treatment plant, which includes Phase 1 final design and other costs, and 60% of the design work for Phase 2, for a proposed price of $2,290,858. 

The anticipated future cost for Phase 2 final design is $700,000, while the anticipated future cost of construction support services for phases 1 and 2 is $3 million. 

West Yost predicts that the project will cost $47,480,000 in total. 

According to the request for council action, submitted by Public Works Director Greg Springman and Engineering Technician Trish Rice, upgrades “will greatly improve the operability of the wastewater treatment plant, which is currently undersized and beyond its serviceable lifespan. … [Current] staff spends significant time fixing broken down equipment and fighting with system inefficiencies.” 

West Yost Principal Engineer Preston Van Meter discussed the economized design. 

“I think we did the best we can to keep the cost down throughout the process,” he said. “We know costs are going to go up, but maybe if we cut out extra stuff, we can at least make this project affordable.” 

He added that cuts aren’t meant to negatively affect performance. 

“This facility is exactly what you need,” he said. “It’s simpler, easier to operate and will be well designed.” 

The council also voted 3-2 to authorize the Mahler family to select a name for the upgraded facility from a list of city staff recommendations, all of which contain the Mahler name. 

“Due to the significant improvements to the existing WWTP, the design team proposed that a more modern name would reflect the current design and the Sweet Home community,” Springman said. 

Springman further explained that John Mahler served on the city council from 1973 to 1978, during the current’s plan construction. His name is featured on a plaque in the operations building entryway. 

He also noted that John’s son, current mayor Greg Mahler, first served on city council from November 1993 to December 1994. He returned in 2008 and was elected mayor in 2017, and has volunteered with the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District since 1987. 

“As mayor, he has been the driving force for infrastructure improvements in Sweet Home for several years, explicitly pushing staff to complete a full upgrade of the city’s WWTP,” he said.

Councilor Dylan Richards asked about public input on the matter. Springman replied that the city has not reached out. 

“Usually when things are named after someone, they’ve either donated a ton of money to it, like $10 million, or they’re dead,” Richards said. “I think it’s a little weird that we’re naming it after our current mayor.” 

Councilors Richards and Angelita Sanchez voted no while Gourley, Dave Trask and Diane Gerson voted yes. Mayor Greg Mahler and Susan Coleman were not present. 

The council also unanimously authorized City Manager Pro Tem Christy Wurster to appoint a plant operator and a seasonal municipal maintenance employee after the two previous operators announced their resignations. 

It also voted to allow the city to utilize the Occupational Skills Training Program through Chemeketa Community College to train students for work in treatment plants at little to no cost to the facility. 

Utilities Manager Steven Haney said that the city does not compensate students, whose insurance and worker’s compensations are handled by the college, so the city’s risk is “very slight.” 

“We can choose who we work with and who we do not work with, and we are not committed to keeping someone for the full length of the training agreement if we have cause,” he said. “It is difficult nationally to find qualified treatment facility operators. This program will allow us, at near-zero cost, to train operators, who will then be available after the program to provide a deeper recruitment group regionally.” 

In other action: 

— The council unanimously voted to approve a grant agreement allowing the city to collect $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for a 22nd Avenue crosswalk. 

The council voted last October to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the Oregon Department of Transportation regarding a US Highway 20/OR 228 curb ramps project, which included the installation of pedestrian crossing improvements at the intersection of Main Street (US 20) and 22nd Avenue. 

Funding for the inclusion of a pedestrian crossing was pursued by Councilor Angelita Sanchez and distributed by State Representative Jamie Cate and Senator Fred Girod through legislative ARPA allocations. 

— The council voted unanimously to authorize an application to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for a parks planning grant to update the city’s parks system master plan. 

The city’s current plan was adopted in January 2014. Larsen said that while it wasn’t as outdated as the 1983 plan it replaced, the current one is limited in its recommendations and missing guidance in two key areas, containing no standards for necessary park amenities nor a standard on the maximum distance residents need to travel to reach it. Its current guidance, he added, is limited to a gross park acreage target, and provides little guidance on new amenities.  

According to Larsen, this became a problem recently when donors sought to establish a dog park. 

“There is no guidance in the plan to help with such a request,” he said, “and constructing a park amenity outside of the master plan gives preference to the voice of a few over the voice of the whole community.” 

OPRD offers planning grants to be used for projects ranging from individual parks to park system master plans.

The grant program requires a 40% match from local government upon being awarded, with a maximum of $40,0j00. City staff expects that an updated plan could cost between $30,000 and $45,000, which would result in a $12,000 to $18,000 match. 

Councilor Lisa Gourley said the council has discussed the cost of draining water from Strawberry Park. 

“Yet if we used naturalized vegetation and made it a butterfly park focus or something,” she said, “we could use that natural landscape and environment to our good in creating a park that has a unique personality. So many people in town have dogs, and dog parks aren’t a piece of our plan.

“Why isn’t it? It’s not serving our community the way it should. And I think it’s time that we really take a good look at parks having a personality that match our community. Think smarter not harder.” 

“The people on [the Parks and Tree Committee] have worked for years to further the interest of our community, and they’ve done a good job,” she continued. “They’ve been dedicated and hard working. I think this just gives them the tools that they need.”